Magazine | June 3, 2013, Issue

The Difference It Will Make

Lessons from Benghazi

The May 8 congressional testimony of three courageous State Department whistleblowers foreshadows a substantially longer, more detailed public investigation into the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks. It is clear even now, however, that the Obama administration’s willful blindness to the continuing threat of international terrorism is a major reason for its mistakes before, during, and after the murders of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues. It is appropriate already to draw lessons, although others will undoubtedly surface. Consider the following.

Lesson One: The CIA should not write “talking points” for members of Congress, the White House, or other executive agencies. It may take time to understand fully the drafting of the “talking points” and other narratives deployed by Obama-administration officials in the weeks after the Benghazi attacks. Unquestionably, however, one of the most stunning recent revelations is the CIA’s role in formulating U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s script for her five September 16 talk-show appearances.

It is not proper for the CIA to undertake such a task, even at the request of Congress or the White House. Remember when the Bush administration was accused of breaching the “wall of separation” between intelligence and policy, thereby “politicizing” the intelligence community? Can you imagine the outcry if senior Bush officials had asked the CIA to draft talking points about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Today, Obama’s advisers have seemingly solved the “wall of separation” problem by eliminating the wall, making the CIA merely one more drafter of administration spin. Yet no one in Congress or the media seems exercised. They should be.

An administration is entitled to tell a story tailored to its political needs. And the opposition is entitled to rip that story to pieces according to its political needs. The CIA has no place in such battles. Instead, it should be confined to “clearing” talking points, speeches, and proposed answers to press inquiries that others draft, primarily to make sure that classified information is revealed only if authorized executive officials have decided to declassify it. (In the Bush years, intelligence officials used the clearance process to undermine administration policy, a different kind of breach, but no less egregious.) The CIA should also protect sensitive intelligence-gathering sources and methods from being revealed or compromised in public statements, and it should ensure that such statements are consistent with the available intelligence. It should have no role in either advancing or undermining administration policy.

Drafting talking points for senators or representatives is even worse, because so doing violates the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution. The CIA doesn’t work for Congress. It advises the president and executive-branch agencies. If members of Congress want talking points, they have staffs to write them, with the CIA giving its clearance as described above. That’s how then-director of the CIA David Petraeus should have responded when he was asked to provide the intelligence committees with talking points during a congressional briefing just days after the attack.

This is not simply a bureaucratic nicety. Drafting (and redrafting, and redrafting) talking points, speeches, and answers to press questions, especially in the middle of a crisis, is inherently political. That doesn’t make it wrong, because high-level governance is inherently political; as Justice Byron White once opined, “You can’t take the politics out of politics.” But the spin room is not the place for the intelligence community. If Obama’s White House and State Department had done their jobs properly in drafting the Benghazi talking points, and the CIA had been confined to its proper role, the real internal administration dynamic here would be far more readily apparent. So too would be the assignment of responsibility.

Even some of the talking points that were indisputably drafted by the CIA show political correctness creeping in, reflecting the administration’s blindness toward international terrorism. That the CIA says what its political masters want to hear is the entirely predictable effect of politicization and self-censorship. Get that wall of separation out of storage.

Lesson Two: If American diplomatic or intelligence personnel are to be deployed in dangerous places for political reasons, think through what is necessary to protect them. It is true that neither our foreign- nor our clandestine-service members can take shelter within embassy fortresses and still do their jobs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly used the near-cliché “expeditionary diplomacy” to describe her favored approach, but we now see that she did not fully realize what it implied. More broadly, however, mistakes regarding Benghazi were not just State Department errors; they reflect broader failings in President Obama’s national-security decision-making.

#page#We now know that there was substantial advance warning about the dangers in Benghazi and in Libya more generally. Following nearly two years of turmoil caused by the Arab Spring, with violence throughout the Middle East, there was simply no excuse for not providing enhanced security to U.S. citizens both official and private, and not just in Libya but region-wide. After having to evacuate American citizens from Tripoli in February 2011 by rented Greek ferryboat because adequate U.S. air and naval assets were unavailable, did no one foresee that similar contingencies were likely to arise in the near future? Was no consideration given to pre-positioning additional military and other assets closer to sites of potential danger in North Africa and the Middle East? These kinds of questions should be routinely asked and answered, but apparently they were not.

Lesson Three: The White House must  assign responsibility clearly among agencies operating overseas. In theory, U.S. ambassadors are “chiefs of mission,” responsible for all official U.S. activity in the countries to which they are accredited. In reality, military and intelligence, for very good reasons, often operate completely independently by express presidential authorization or direction. In other cases, the Pentagon and the CIA operate on their own regardless of formal lines of authority, and thereby provoke endless turf fights abroad and in Washington.

There is no uniform “right” answer for all countries. Instead, the president must shoulder his unique responsibility to make sure that lines of authority and communication, especially in trouble spots such as Libya, are clear and understood by all. Operating through his National Security Council, he is the ultimate allocator of responsibility and authority among the various departments and agencies that labor overseas. This may seem like mere “management” to the disengaged President Obama and a task unworthy of him, but these decisions often involve highly sensitive matters of grand strategy. The president who shirks his responsibility in this area will pay a price, as will his subordinates, sometimes fatally.

We still do not have a satisfactory answer as to why there was a diplomatic mission in Benghazi at all, and why, by State’s own standards, the physical facility was so inadequately secured. The bulk of U.S. personnel in Benghazi were from the intelligence community and posted to the “annex,” not the consulate compound. If the State facility was there to provide cover for the CIA, why were the two operations physically separate? Not much cover there. And as an August 16 cable sent from the mission to Washington reveals, both State and CIA personnel understood that, in light of the threat environment in Benghazi, the two locations should have been consolidated. Finally, as we now know only too tragically, there were inadequate military resources available to come to the defense or rescue of the isolated Americans in Benghazi.

Our government’s performance before and during Benghazi resulted in four murders. Whether responsibility for this failure lies with Obama himself or elsewhere, lines of authority clearly broke down. Repairing this failure should be a matter of urgency.

Lesson Four: The State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) process is broken and should be discarded. The Benghazi ARB should be the last of its kind. There is no justification for having a review panel appointed, as here, by an official (the under secretary for management) whose own conduct should come under review. Unsurprisingly, the Benghazi ARB fixed blame at the assistant-secretary level, one rung down the ladder.

Optimally, State’s inspector general (IG) should appoint independent reviewers, thus protecting against interference from above and minimizing fears of retaliation against State employees below. Equally important, the IG should be free to work with his Defense, CIA, and other counterparts to perform comprehensive assessments. Even accepting the Benghazi ARB tout court, we should remember that it examined only part of the story. Especially given the CIA’s important role in Benghazi, it is impossible to assess accurately what corrections are needed without including that agency in the review. Some CIA-related issues might have been addressed in the ARB’s classified report, but no one pretends its review was truly government-wide, as it ought to have been. And where, as here, the White House is involved, only congressional investigations can possibly be comprehensive enough.

Undoubtedly, these practical lessons from Benghazi constitute just a beginning. Their common theme is the need for nonpartisan, commonsense principles of presidential leadership and supervision over the executive branch. As more details emerge about Benghazi (and about the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing), broader conclusions will be drawn. By themselves, of course, no set of lessons can prevent an administration’s willful blindness to international terrorism, but these are a start. And, to answer Hillary Clinton’s infamous rhetorical question, that is what difference it makes, even now.

– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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